Creator Interviews

Creator Interview – Simon Graeme

Welcome to Gerdi Talks, oh wise readers! Gerdi here, kidnapping–no, I mean–inviting other creators to sit down and chat with me. A real friendly conversation, just the two of us. The only things I get to do around this joint are interview creators, characters, and snack on cheese. Cheese is life.

Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to my first friend.

Simon Graeme is an author and cover designer with a flair for everything dark. His latest book, Dark Lament is out now. He also explores his talent with visual arts as a cover art designer.


Jumping into things, I’m going to swing way out in the left field here and ask: what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?  
Eh, I’m boring. I like plain ole vanilla drowned in an ocean of blackness, a vat of pitch–dark as my soul! Some might call it chocolate syrup. Sprinkles, you ask? Why gild the lily?


Do you have a favorite animal? 

I have a cat named Titan, but she’s better known as Satan. She is evil.
That’s very specific.
In general, I’m very fond of red pandas ‘cause they are cute and fuzzy.


You are an author. Let’s talk about that first. What about writing do you love?

Playing God. That is to say, creating fantastic worlds with powerful conflicts of light and dark. I really like the dark parts and the villains. Maybe, playing the Devil is more accurate.


Is there anything about writing you hate?

The isolation. [Writers] seem to work in a vacuum.
Weird, that I give a serious answer on this one.
Writing is very lonely work until you connect with readers through your characters. That’s when you get this incredible sense of community that makes all the isolation worth it.


What is the strangest thing you’ve ever written, and why did you write it?

This interview is up there.

Actually, I’m very into roleplaying and I once created an NPC (non-player character) for a story I was running based in White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade. In that setting, there is a bloodline of vampires that were not only crazy, but they revered insanity. So, I created a character of that line that kept his own zoo of crazy humans in the belly of an old oil tanker in a ship graveyard, where he studied how to make people more insane in an effort to reach a pseudo-spiritual level of crazy–sort of an insanity nirvana. Why would I write that? It’s fun to create a character who has motivations that are completely alien to most people but can be explained in an odd sort of way. By his insane logic, he was free to do anything.


What is your earliest memory of writing or at least telling a good story?

I don’t know about good. I started writing a comic book when I was in high school. I’m also an artist but the comic book style was something I could never master. I enjoyed writing about the world and the characters’ backstories for the comic. I was hooked after that.


How did you come to find yourself in this line of work? What led you here?

I guess, the comic book thing. But, even in my art, I’ve always strived to be a storyteller.  I’m also a husband and a father with a ton of responsibilities. I began writing prose seriously back in the early 2000s, but after the first draft of my first novel, I was never able to finish anything. When I got married and had kids, often working 2 jobs at a time, I honestly didn’t have time to write. I had a stroke in March 2018, which left me disabled. Bright side, now I have a lot of time to write and have published my first novel.


I’m sorry about your stroke, it sounds awful. But, on the bright side, as you said, you have more time for writing! Do you have a dream goal for your work? What do you want to see come from all this hard work?

I want my work to be read by millions. That’s not too much to ask for, right? Actually, that and I’d like to make a living for my family again while doing something that I love and that I am good at.


What is your creative process for writing? How does it make you feel?

I drop acid. Lots of acid.

No, actually, when I’m brainstorming, I put on music with headphones, lay back, close my eyes, and let the music conjure its own music video. I’ve come up with some crazy imagery this way. I write fantasy and one of the biggest hallmarks of fantasy is something that creates a sense of wonder. I world-build around these kinds of elements, all gleaned from the music.


Do you utilize a work schedule?

Not really. When I’m drafting, which means actively working on that first draft, it’s sort of balls to the wall. I do writing sprints. But unlike a lot of writers, I don’t set a timer and just go at it. I set a small word count goal, like 500 words, and I write until I hit it. I use Scrivener, which has a nice tool to let you track your project goals and session goals. As soon as I hit 500, I take a 5-15-minute break, then go right back at it. I’ll do this 4-6 times most days. Sometimes, I’ll do it in the morning than late at night. My best word count for a day is 7,000 words.


How did it feel to finish your most recent book?

When I was in the middle of actually having the stroke, I thought I was dying. After that, my first thought was for my kids and the next was for all the stories I had yet to tell. I got out of the hospital on April 1, 2018. I finished the first draft of Dark Lament mid-July. I went through a lot of rehab in and out of the hospital, where I even had to relearn how to type. Finishing that draft was probably one of the proudest moments of my life and it happened in the middle of the worst year of my life.


Are you working on anything new that you can share with us?

Dark Lament was Book I of The Black Crusade series. I am now working on Heretic’s Song: Book II of The Black Crusade series. In Dark Lament, the protagonist has two teachers, but one is something of a father figure who proves to be a true hero in the book. Heretic’s Song is more his story. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I’m so excited to share it with the world.


Is anything with your current project going awry or causing hiccups in the process?

Yes. This book was two books, one prequel meant to be a 30,000-word novella and the other a true sequel to book I. I was going to use the prequel as a reader magnet for Book I by giving it away free. Instead of a 30,000-word novella, it ended up at 60,000 words, which is when I realized I wouldn’t have it done in time for the release of book I. So, instead I wrote a short story that would have been the climax of the prequel to use as the magnet and began writing book II of the series. At that point, I realized that there were things in the prequel that I wanted readers to know in book II. So, I decided to use what I had written in book II as a framework for incorporating the prequel, merging the two novels. This created a new problem. I left book I on a bit of a cliffhanger. I, now,  have to give some answer to that in this new book to satisfy my readers. This second book has to do some heavy lifting.


You have a lot on your plate as a writer! Speaking of heavy lifting, you also do cover design. Is this something you enjoy doing?

I was an artist long before I realized I was a writer. Like I said, both are aspects of storytelling for me. I went to college, right out of high school, to be an artist and found myself in graphic design because I was trying to find a way to use my talent to make a living. The “starving artist” concept is not a cliche. Unless you’re in New York, and very lucky, there’s no money in art. I learned to use Photoshop way back in the ‘90s. I dropped out of college back then and never had a “real art job”. When I found that writing was my passion, I realized there was a huge market for cover designers. I was still using Photoshop and had transitioned all my art to digital, so it just made sense to start marketing my services as a business. And since I considered there to be so many shitty covers out there, I named this new business Lost Art Designs, because–with the decline of the traditional publishers–making covers was beginning to seem like a lost art.  

I enjoy it a great deal. It’s always nice to earn a bit of a living doing something you’re naturally good at and I love to see writers with great covers.


Can you talk about your design process a little?

The author tells me the genre and what the book is about. Most times, they have a pretty clear idea of what they want and will often come to me with stock images they’ve already purchased for the cover. Most authors don’t really understand that the cover is just an expensive piece of marketing and really have no clue about design or composition, so I have to talk them into doing something reasonable. For example, you never want to try to depict a scene from the book. It becomes a vanity piece that interests no one other than the author. It certainly doesn’t sell books. You want an attention-grabbing, visually appealing composition that is vaguely related to the story, with a humanizing element (usually just an image of a person).

Next, I do a mock-up design, which could be a sketch or rough composition of elements that give an idea of what the cover is going to look like conceptually. Sort of like a storyboard for film or animation. Once the author approves that, I send them a Paypal invoice for an agreed upon down payment (sometimes for the pricier pieces, I’ll let them pay in installments based on milestones, but it’s usually half the total fee).

Once I receive the payment, I go to work on the cover. This can take a day, a week, or even a month depending on the project. Once it’s done, I send them a full resolution JPEG for the e-book, a PDF for the print version, and a resized JPEG of the e-book that they can share on social media easily, and then, an invoice for the final payment. Typically, they have a week to pay this.

My philosophy when it comes to my covers is to provide over-the-top quality, no matter the agreed upon elements. I charge more for illustration-heavy projects because they take more time, but if I realize I have promised something that I thought was easy that turns out to be harder, I’ll put in the time and make it work no matter what. My covers are always worth more than I charge. It’s part of being a perfectionist.


Where do you find inspiration?

Music. I am also inspired by genius. I watch movies that I think have incredible writing or I watch comedians whose intellect dazzles me. I’m a huge fan of Bo Burnham. I think he is a tortured genius. His Right Brain Left Brain bit is incredible. He also has a closing bit in his third special, Make Happy, where he does this Kanye-inspired rant that has brought me to tears more than once. That kind of inspired genius fills up my inspiration tank. On a similar vein, I love Rick and Morty. This Adult Swim animation has some of the most amazing sci-fi plotting you’ll ever find. It’s truly inspiring.


Is this something you saw yourself doing when you were younger?

I was gonna be an astronaut until I realized I had to join the Air Force and how physically taxing it would be. I could never run a mile in school and I knew that the military was not the place for me.  But, I figured out that I wanted to be a writer when I was 19. 23 years later, I feel like I’m getting somewhere.


You may not be an astronaut but you’ve definitely had your fair share of out of this world endeavors with your own writing. We started this interview segment with the under-appreciation for creators online being a focus. We’d like to ask you a few questions pertaining to the situation if you don’t mind.

I mean, you have me tied up. I’m not in a position to argue.


Have you, as a writer, ever tried to do freelance work?

I tried my hand at copywriting. It was the marketing aspect that didn’t work out. Too hard to find work.

All my cover design work is freelance though.


What was the most shocking offer you have seen for writing?

Nothing shocks me. I guess I didn’t realize there were “authors” who couldn’t write at all and made their careers based on ghostwriters. Feels like cheating where fiction is concerned.


How do you define quality writing?

Writing is just communication. So, the ability to communicate well is a survival trait in the Information Age. I value storytelling just as highly, if not more so. Storytelling through fiction is what keeps us all sane. It’s like an addictive drug that only has helpful side effects. Some people escape their shitty lives through alcohol and narcotics, leaving them shittier, but others allow fiction to whisk them away and allow them the opportunity to be someone else for a while before returning to real life, uplifted. That’s pretty powerful and I think it offers a bit of a recharge we all desperately need to cope with the harsh realities we face.


How do you feel about ghost writers? (Not the television show from the ‘90s.)

For non-fiction, especially biographies, I totally get it. It’s like hiring an artist to do a portrait. For fiction, fuck that! You put in the time and effort to craft your own skills and write it yourself instead of paying someone a few hundred bucks to possibly make you thousands without them ever getting a shred of recognition. Nope. I get why a starving writer might do this, but I feel like the person that has more money than talent is taking advantage and taking a huge dump on what we do.


Of course, you also do cover art. Have you ever been asked to do work for free, for exposure, or for some other reason?

So many times. I’ve even been offered a share of future profits “once the project gets off the ground.” Guess what 10% of 0 is?

I have undercut myself on cover jobs just so that I could build up my portfolio. To me, that’s an almost-tangible investment in my own future. It’s good for word-of-mouth when a $100 cover has the quality of a $500 cover. Artists are so often devalued by those with no talents of their own. They think of us as little more than printers for the ideas in their brains. When really, we are wizards drawing out disjointed ideas and concepts and breathing magical life into them. That’s worth a lot more than pretend “exposure”.

But, as a writer, my favorite is when people graciously decide to share their ideas for a novel I should write. I’m probably way more creative than that person and I barely have time to write my own stuff. Go take some creative writing classes, if you want your masterpiece realized. I don’t need your ideas. Ever.


Have you ever taken on those requests before?

No. I’ve come close with a couple projects, but my good business sense won out.


Have you ever been told your prices were too high for cover art, or perhaps, that your book prices were too high?

Just recently, I was told my book cover prices were too low and the author more than doubled the fee. I had cut him a deal on three book covers and the last was a paltry sum. He decided the first two were so good that he needed to be paying me more. Cha-ching!


Wow. Congrats! That sounds awesome. Do you have any juicy stories to share when dealing with clients? Good or bad.

Not really. All clients are different. They often have tunnel vision though and will walk off a cliff until given some guidance. You have to be willing to speak up.


Before I untie you, I want to talk about your most recent work, Dark Lament. It is currently available to purchase, correct?

Yes, it’s available on Amazon in e-book format only, for the moment. I’m working on print and audiobook versions as we speak.


What is the genre and length of Dark Lament?

Dark fantasy best fits the style and tone, but it’s going to be a fairly long series. So, you could call it Epic Fantasy. I like to call it Crusader Fantasy, because, as far as I know, outside of video games, this is the only fantasy novel inspired by the Crusades period of our world.


How long did it take you to write the book?

Four months for the first draft, but I didn’t publish until six months later. I got really busy with Lost Art Designs in that period. So, ten months could have been six, I think.


Did anything specific inspire this book?

The book is inspired by the later Crusades period of our world. I have always been fascinated by the idea of the Crusades, where two groups, following two separate religions fought each other for many reasons, but mostly justified as being about their religions, and yet, they would admit that they worshipped the same god.

I tied this to the fantasy trope of the paladin, a holy warrior, blessed with great abilities by their god to fight in His or Her name. I thought, “What if you had two peoples fighting a religious war, where both sides not only worshipped the same god but had paladins blessed by that god?” The concept of “Who is right?” becomes far more complex now.


Sounds like fun. So, for the interested parties, where can people buy this book if they want a copy?

They can find it on Amazon.

What is the one thing fans can do to support you and your creativity?

They can buy my book! But, that’s not all. They can buy my book, read it, then leave a thoughtful review. Beyond purchases, reviews are the best way to support any author, especially a self-published one. Even if you leave a bad Amazon review, it will aid in sales down the road.

Now, could you at least loosen these knots? I stopped being able to feel my fingers a while ago.


Thank you Simon for a wonderful interview. If you are interested in following Simon Graeme, you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or check out his website. For those looking for his cover art, visit his Facebook or Portfolio.

See everyone again soon!


Xaneria Ann

Founder and lead publisher of Dreaming Rabbit Press. Author and Artist. Caffeine obsessed, bunny loving, elf fanatic.

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